Find out about the main causes of malnutrition in adults and children.

Malnutrition (undernutrition) is caused by a lack of nutrients in your diet, either due to a poor diet or problems absorbing nutrients from food.

Certain things can increase a person's risk of becoming malnourished.

Health conditions

Some conditions that can lead to malnutrition include:

You can also become malnourished if your body needs an increased amount of energy – for example, if it's healing after surgery or a serious injury such as a burn, or if you have involuntary movements such as a tremor.


Some types of medication may increase your risk of developing malnutrition.

Some medicines have unpleasant side effects – such as loss of appetite, diarrhoea or nausea – that could mean you eat less or don't absorb as many nutrients from your food.

Physical and social factors

The following factors can also contribute to malnutrition:

  • teeth that are in a poor condition, or dentures that don't fit properly, which can make eating difficult or painful 
  • a physical disability or other impairment that makes it difficult to move around, cook or shop for food
  • living alone and being socially isolated
  • having limited knowledge about nutrition or cooking
  • alcohol or drug dependency
  • low income or poverty

Causes of malnutrition in children

In the UK, malnutrition in children is commonly caused by long-term health conditions that:

  • cause lack of appetite
  • disrupt digestion
  • increase the body's demand for energy

Examples of these types of conditions include childhood cancers, congenital heart diseasecystic fibrosis and cerebral palsy.

Some children may become malnourished because of an eating disorder or a behavioural or psychological condition that means they avoid or refuse food.

Malnutrition as a result of a poor diet is rare in the UK, but may occur if a child is neglected, living in poverty or being abused. Call the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000 if you're concerned about a child.

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